Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Friday the Thirteenth

Today is Friday the Thirteenth. Synonymous with bad luck, superstitions about the number thirteen are everywhere. Thirteen is so unlucky that in many hotels and apartment buildings, there is no room with the number 13 and no 13th floor.

How did that happen? How is it that we, as humans, have this idea of good luck and bad luck? And what are the mental health implications of believing in luck?

1. The unluckiest day of the year. Thirteen as an unlucky number dates back to the infamous Last Supper when Jesus Christ, and his disciples, 13 in all, dined for the last time together. Jesus was betrayed by Judas and crucified the next day. Bad luck indeed. Hundreds of years later, 1307 to be exact, the events of Friday the 13th of October made Friday the Thirteenth the most ominous day of the year forevermore. Under pressure from the Pope, King Philip IV of France arrested hundreds of Knights Templar over religious allegations. Actually, it is pretty clear that his actions were all about power and politics that served as a maneuver to discredit the wealthy religious order and as a pretext to absolve the King of debts owed to them. As the order’s grand master, Jacques de Molay, burned at the stake in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he is said to have cried out a curse on those who could do such wrong. In his torment, he promised calamity for all those who transgressed. The hex hangs over Friday the 13th for one and all.

2. But what is bad luck really? Defined as mischance or misfortune, bad luck occurs when an unknown and unpredictable phenomenon causes an undesired outcome. At its core, good or bad luck is defined by randomness and is not predictable. Luck is about unanticipated events that could not be logically forecast with certainty. They are good or bad depending on how we feel about the outcome of the events. But humans are rational beings who crave logical narratives that conform to our sensibilities of logic, order, understanding, and prognostication. So even though we recognize that luck – good or bad – is rooted in chance, when we role of the dice we cross our fingers, whisper a special incantation or rub our favorite talisman that waits in our pockets for just these moments.

3. Luck is a complex cognitive idea. We need to achieve a high level of cognitive development to understand the construct of luck – good or bad. To claim that something occurred as a result of luck, we need to achieve a stage of cognitive maturity that includes understanding concepts of agency and control, chance and prediction, cause and effect. And then once we understand what luck is, we humans attempt to control it. It is really a paradox. Knowing that we cannot control what is out of our control, and we nonetheless try to maximize our good luck and minimize our bad luck. And even more paradoxically, maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

4. Touch wood. Paradoxically, maybe believing we are lucky isn’t as illogical as it seems at first glance. Believing that we are prone to good luck rather than bad luck is an adaptive cognitive coping strategy in life. Research shows that believing in luck can actually make you luckier. People who think of themselves as lucky experience greater good fortune, perhaps in part because we are more willing to take advantage of opportunities. We are less risk adverse. Feeling lucky can help us cope with unfavorable circumstance, increase our sense of agency and help us feel hopeful when circumstances are bleak, even if they may be beyond our control.

5. Mental illness and bad luck. We know some of the most important risk factors for various mental illnesses, but we are not able to definitively predict exactly who will develop schizophrenia vs. depression vs. an eating disorder vs. who will reach adulthood without any of these heath conditions. There is an element of luck – good luck and bad luck. In truth, maybe luck is the term we will use as a place holder until we better understand all the biological and environmental factors that cause one condition or another. We can debate whether that day will ever come. Until then, one of the most serious errors we make in our quest to slay the bad luck of mental illness is to blame individuals who live with these health conditions. In our wish to understand and explain, we compound the misfortune of mental illness with criticism and blame, maybe even unintentionally sometimes. Telling loved ones that their depression (or substitute any other mental illness) is a product of bad attitude, bad decisions, and lack of will is a refusal to accept that there is a significant element of luck – good and bad – that shapes our mental health.

The dilemma is that getting well and coping with the bad luck of mental illness can be greatly enhanced by positive attitude, optimism, hope, good decisions, and determination. Even believing in good luck seems to help a bit.

The critical fine line is distinguishing between the ways that bad luck is associated with developing a mental illness and the potential ways that good luck can help us live with and recover from mental illness. Good luck with that.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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